Wendy Baker, director of the Fort at No.4 Living History Museum, touches an historically accurate wall color.

Recreating 18th century frontier life in Charlestown; it was more colorful than we thought


Submitted 5 months ago

By the time of the American War for Independence, the No. 4 fort was already old. Although General John Stark mustered troops at the fort in 1777, the frontier that No. 4 guarded had pushed West a generation earlier. There was not much of the fort left, as wood and building materials had been repurposed to serve other needs of the local citizenry and its livestock.

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Wendy Baker, director of the No. 4 Fort museum in Charlestown, said their Independence Day presentation will combine, therefore, two eras. 

“We will be talking about how the Declaration of Independence affects the people on the frontier,” she said. The fort was built to protect settlers from Abenaki attacks, and those who lived in it during its active period — 1743 to 1760 — worked with the British to defend against the native people and the French. 

“Most of the people who fought in the French and Indian War — those who were merchants and ministers of the town at the time of the Declaration — were not keen to cut ties with the British,” said Baker. 

However, Charlestown, upon receiving the news that colonists had declared independence from the Crown, voted with the rebels. To keep an eye on the Loyalists in their midst, the citizens formed a committee on safety “to collect Loyalists who were being disruptive,” said Baker. 

For example, the town minister was locked up in Claremont, although, via a gentleman's agreement, he was allowed out on his word on honor to perform the duties of his ministry. 

Loyalists unwilling to be quite so gentlemanly formed a militia and regrouped in New York, then went to Canada. 

Meanwhile, the seeds of the Revolution had been germinating in Charlestown for a generation or more. 

The fort was rebuilt in 1947, using museum founders' best knowledge of life in the 18th century. “It was meant to serve as an educational tool for people visiting from Europe,” said Baker. As with Plimoth Plantation and colonial Williamsburg, founded in the same era, docents in period dress offer their deep knowledge of the time and place to those who visit. 

Fortunately, a soldier who stayed at the fort in 1746 drew a map, detailing who dwelt within which houses and where common rooms were. In the shape of a square, the fort had one entry, and within its walls a well and houses for a dozen families. A great chamber large enough for a prodigious gathering overlooked the south gate of the fort; gardens were outside, and the colonists' pigs were turned loose to forage – to the consternation of the Abenaki, who fenced their livestock but didn't fence their gardens. 

Baker is dressed in a period costume, she admits, that probably wouldn't have been seen on women dwelling in the No. 4 fort in 1743. Her ancestors were French and Dutch, and Baker's short(ish) skirts are a tribute to them. Without buttons, her outfit is “infinitely adjustable,” she said. 

And although English settlers did wear colors, “But not necessarily all at the same time, like the French. That's why I clash.” 

The buildings employed few nails in their construction, relying on mortise and tenon joints and wooden pegs. While for many years historians believed that the colonists didn't paint their houses, and the reconstructed fort was left unpainted in keeping with that belief, it's now known that wasn't strictly the case. While the Puritans definitely frowned on color and paint (a preacher in the Charlestown colony in Texas was accused of sacrilege for painting his house's interior), the settlers in Charlestown, New Hampshire were Presbyterians, Congregationalists, a few Quakers and possibly a few Methodists. 

Therefore, the nicer family homes within the fort now have painted walls. 

In their daily life, the families in the fort worked around restrictions built into their relationship with Britain. Silks, fine linens and cotton cloth were imported; the Wool Act expressly forbid colonies from manufacturing their own woolens. Another act of the crown prevented colonies from selling woolen goods or beaver hats to other colonies, and in 1750 the Iron Act prohibited the colonies from manufacturing finished iron goods. 

Further, far from church and state being separate, colonists were required to tithe to the Anglican church – no matter what they believed. Small wonder, then, that when the move to cut ties with Britain came, independence-minded pioneers rallied from all over New Hampshire to fight under John Stark. 

“They set up camp here with their families,” said Baker. “Such was his fame that 1,500 men came from all over the state.” 

Still, life on this northern outpost of the English empire was freer than in the cities or along the seacoast. Women shared in the family business, often taking the reins themselves. 

“It was the frontier,” said Baker.  

-- GLYNIS HART

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